In a 1960 article for Esquire that anticipated the election of John F. Kennedy, Norman Mailer alluded to a “subterranean river that is the dream life of a nation.” He was probably referring to the hidden political passions of the left and right, but, in the age of Trump, middle-of-the-roaders also have elusive dreams, some of which were dramatized for the past six years in the CBS TV series Madam Secretary, which aired its series finale on December 8.
For the most part, the mainstream press either ignored or condescended to the political drama starring Tea Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, who was secretary of state for the first five years. Keith Carradine plays Conrad Dalton, the president who appointed her and who is replaced when McCord becomes America’s first female president. In an affectionate farewell, Margaret Lyons of The New York Times nevertheless referred to Madam Secretary as “the least hip of shows,” and downplayed its political relevance.
Yet the “conservative” website MRC (whose slogan is “Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias” and which Breitbart often links to) published three separate attack pieces about the show in the last few months, beginning with the snarky exhortation, “Liberals rejoice! Your dream of a Hillary Clinton presidency is finally coming true.”
That right-wing focus may have been as a result of the fact that in the increasingly fragmented video playing field, old-school TV networks remain a surprisingly big fragment. At its peak, Madam Secretary was seen by over 14 million viewers—more than triple the number who watch the highest-rated cable news programs. A fictional series about Washington is not “news,” but in a culture in which a large percentage of voters make decisions based on emotions, a drama that directly addresses political issues is one part of the mosaic that forms contemporary mythology. Although the show’s creator, Barbara Hall, told me that she had not kept track of its demographics, she agreed that a large part of Madame Secretary’s audience was the kind of older, educated suburban women who are responsible for Nancy Pelosi’s being House speaker.
Hall, who previously produced Joan of Arcadia, based Madam Secretary on the template of The West Wing: intelligent, idealistic characters who like to banter (no anti-heroes among them), earnest attempts to present political issues, but with enough humor and family drama added to avoid the feel of a civics lesson. Madam Secretary depicted a Washington in which conservatives and liberals had principled arguments, which strained credulity even during the Obama administration when the series began—and which increasingly seemed like a fairy tale in the Trump era.
Hall initially set the series in the State Department, believing that setting would allow the characters to avoid tribal arguments about domestic issues. But Madam Secretary’s concept of the foreign policy “center” included a sentimental view of imperialism. Both McCord and her husband, Henry (played by Tim Daly), had worked for the CIA earlier in their careers. The premiere of the 2018 season included cameos by Madeline Albright, Colin Powell, and Hillary Clinton.
Madam Secretary’s primary story arc in its final season revolved around election interference by Iran—which in real life has been the favorite bogeyman of neoconservatives. Unlike Trump, McCord knows nothing of a foreign country’s meddling, was outraged when she found out, and cooperated unreservedly with congressional investigations. There was an unsettling aftertaste of “both sides do it” in this convoluted formulation.
On the other hand, the series included critiques of the military-industrial complex on issues that rarely get attention from the mainstream media. In one episode, McCord pushed for “de-alerting” of nuclear missiles to reduce the chance of an accidental war, persuading the Russians to reciprocate. Hall recalls, “That’s one of the big aspirational swings we took. It would be an enormous undertaking to actually make that happen.” In another episode, which was informed by research from Human Rights Watch, McCord prevented the military from deploying “autonomous weapons,” robots on the ground that are programmed to kill.
Near the end of the series, the drama depicted a “deep fake” video that made it look like the president and her husband were insulting the Korean president, a deception that temporarily delayed a trade deal. McCord delved into the website YourVid (a fictional version of YouTube) and recognized that the site had an algorithm that led viewers from the fake to a series of increasingly radical right-wing memes. She despairingly told her husband, “It all leads to white nationalism.” When McCord confronted the CEO of YourVid, the response echoed the kind of disingenuous free-speech arguments that Mark Zuckerberg has been making lately.
MRC indignantly wrote, “Madam Secretary subscribes to the theory that fake videos not only spread lies but radicalize people into racists as well.” Yet I suspect the complaint obscures the actual reason that a painstakingly centrist drama was the source of so much libertarian ire. Madame Secretary’s real sin was that it portrayed an effective female president who oversaw an executive branch populated by earnest, hardworking policy wonks who worked for the greater good of the United States. Most of the issues dramatized by the series will fade in relevance over time, but its sympathetic vision of the foreign service will live on via Netflix (which also offers all seven seasons of The West Wing). The show’s aspirational portrayal of government service is probably what triggers the rage of Trumpists—and what makes Madame Secretary, neoliberal warts and all, a subterranean dream worth revisiting.